After four days of play at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, you'd be forgiven if you mistook the O2 Arena for a modern day gladiatorial coliseum. The top men of the ATP have been summoned in, but not all of them have walked out. But if there has been one alpha male who has put his stamp on this event so far, it is its defending champion, Roger Federer.
Federer began his campaign on Sunday, carrying a 14-match win streak since the US Open, including back-to-back titles in his hometown of Basel and then Paris. He looked in fine form despite being pushed to three sets by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the man who engineered a historic comeback to oust him this year at The Championships. But his true test lay in his second round robin match against Rafael Nadal.
The two clashed for the 26th time in front of a capacity crowd on Tuesday night, but no one, not even Federer could have expected the result. In a one-hour display of vintage Federer tennis, the Swiss trounced Nadal 6-3, 6-0. It was a performance that left both pundits and fans in awe, as Federer came out firing, hitting his lethal forehand with a consistency that has not been seen in some time. Even Nadal had to concede his rival's quality. Noting Federer's undefeated record against him indoors (4-0), Nadal made it clear that this wasn't a surface issue. This was a Federer issue.
“Look, if he plays like this in other surface, don't worry, he will beat me, too,” Nadal conceded. “That's the true.” True indeed, Rafa.
The win qualified Federer for the semi-finals for the ninth time in 10 years, where he could face Novak Djokovic. But the Serb is in a precarious position after finding himself on the wrong side of a 6-3, 6-1 loss to David Ferrer. The Spaniard was solid in all facets of the game, playing his best match of the year, while Djokovic, the man to beat for 2011, undoubtedly played his worst. Djokovic had the look of a man playing with the world on his shoulders, and who had simply run out of steam. The Wimbledon champion sprayed 33 unforced errors off his racket and looked a step too slow as his opponent yanked him around the court.
The Serb refused to place sole blame on the strains of the lengthy tennis season for his lopsided loss, but these are a collective of weary men at the World Tour Finals. Along with Djokovic, Nadal is struggling with a shoulder injury and a bout of food poisoning, and Mardy Fish has had to make his World Tour Finals debut while hobbled with a leg injury. But no one felt the pain more than Andy Murray, who was forced to withdraw from the tournament after aggravating a groin strain he sustained a week before the tournament. Murray played virtually non-stop after the US Open, flying immediately to Glasgow for Davis Cup and then went on a tear through Asia, winning three tournaments back-to-back and accumulating a 17-1 record heading back to London. But the decision to go hard in the autumn swing may have ultimately backfired, and Murray vowed to learn from his mistake. After all that momentum, it was a sombre way to end Murray's best season to date.
With four days left to play, Federer and Ferrer have staked their claim as the men to beat. Federer has looked unbeatable this autumn, and Ferrer hasn't dropped a set in knocking off Djokovic and Murray here in London. With much still to play for (Djokovic, Nadal, Berdych, and Tsonga are still in the hunt to qualify for the semi-finals), it should be a dramatic shootout for one of the most prestigious titles of the season.